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A Realistic Look At Energy

It has been clear for decades that the U.S. desperately needs a national energy policy. As many commentators have pointed out, developing such a policy would have been a productive response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A national energy policy that included a tax on carbon, for example, would have reduced our unhealthy dependence on imported oil and spurred innovation on alternative fuels and more efficient machines and construction techniques.

A decade after those tragic events, very little has changed on the energy front. Developing a coherent energy policy, however, is dependent on a clear understanding of all of the dimensions of energy production and use; the economic, societal, and environmental consequences of energy consumption; and public perceptions of all aspects of the energy landscape. An informative monograph dealing with all of these subjects was brought to my attention earlier this summer by L. Louis Hegedus, a distinguished chemical engineer with more than 40 years of industrial experience who is now a Visiting Distinguished Fellow at RTI International. A number of years ago, Hegedus was a member of C&EN’s Advisory Board.

Hegedus and Dorota S. Temple, a senior fellow in electronics and energy technologies at RTI, are the editors of “Viewing America’s Energy Future in Three Dimensions.” As stated in the preface to the monograph, “The objective of this work was to help frame the ongoing discussion of America’s energy future in the context of all three dimensions—technology, economics, and social sciences—and to draw attention to research needs pertaining to the intersection of the societal factors domain with technology and economics.”

The premise of “Viewing America’s Energy Future in Three Dimensions” is that, “Energy technology and energy economics are necessary, although not sufficient conditions for solving the energy conundrum; the sufficient condition derives from the societal dimension.” Hegedus, Temple, and their coauthors do an excellent job of concisely laying out the fundamentals of energy technology and energy economics in the U.S. While climate change is a consideration in their analysis of the national energy challenge, it is by no means the sole, or even dominant, one. “Beyond producing CO2” they write, “using coal and imported oil is associated with additional important and urgent concerns” that “require timely action regardless of the time scale and outcomes of climate change considerations.”

People’s attitudes toward energy technologies and energy economics will have a significant impact on how the nation addresses its energy challenges, Hegedus and Temple argue, and more research is needed to understand what shapes those attitudes. In the final chapter of the monograph, they make a number of recommendations for further research in the societal dimension of energy policy. These recommendations can be fairly dry—“Determine the nature and magnitude of behavioral failures in private decision making that lead to deviations from cost-minimizing behavior”—for example, but it is precisely this kind of data that should shape public policy.

“Moving forward to meet the energy and environmental challenges outlined here will force choices on the American population,” they write. “As consumers, Americans will have to choose between pursuing energy conservation (consuming less) and investing in energy efficiency (consuming differently). How we choose to mix these two ways of confronting energy shortages will prove critical in shaping American society in the twenty-first century. As citizens, we will be asked to weigh the different values we place on the environment and the economy as well as on individual choice and societal constraint. We will also debate the role of government in effecting the energy infrastructure transformation. Understanding the ways that American society will approach these choices is critical to understanding America’s energy future.”

“Viewing America’s Energy Future in Three Dimensions” is a slim volume (114 pages) packed with useful information. It is also a level-headed analysis of the difficult choices Americans face in addressing our nation’s energy future.

Thanks for reading.

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